Brianna Wu Congress

Space the Nation: Brianna Wu hits restart on her political ambitions

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Sep 11, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

The midterm primary election victories of people of color, women, and queer folks have made headlines, as have candidates with a grounding in science or tech. Sometimes, those categories overlap, as in the cases of previous Space the Nation interviewee Chrissy Houlahan, who is leading in her race to represent Philadelphia's Chester County. 

But any time people who are under-represented try to crash the gates that guard centers of power, some won’t get all the way through. In Massachusetts, game developer Brianna Wu — who identifies as a queer woman — attempted to unseat an eight-term incumbent to represent the state’s eighth Congressional district and she lost, 71 percent to 23 percent. We talked to her a few days after the election about what that was like, and how being a geek helped prepare her to get back up and try again. (See other articles in this series here and here.)

So, I’m not sure what the right opening is here: I’m going to go with “Congratulations for running.”

People have been saying they're sorry I lost. But, to be honest with you, I fully expected this from the beginning. All this no one wins their first time out. And literally, the domains I'm setting up now [that refer to her 2020 run], I bought the day I decided to run in 2018 so — and this is what I was prepared for all along. We've already got $50,000 in the bank for our next run [Laughs] in two days — so, I'm excited.

When people come in off the margins to run for office, sometimes they’re going to lose. 

Of course. It has nothing to do with gender, I mean if women are stepping up to the political process, we get that in all its glory including getting your butt kicked. I mean, we can't let that stop us. We need to be clear-eyed and realistic and we need to believe in ourselves.

How did your game development background prepare you for this moment?

For our very first PAX East [gaming convention] our team had been in dark mode for two years, not showing our new product to anyone. We took it to PAX East and we showed it to just a random group of gamers that happened to be at PAX East and they hated it. It was so painful to have person after person come up and say, ‘This game is too slow.’ ‘This game has too many cut scenes.’ ‘This game — I don't like this.’ It was hard seeing people walk away mid-demo cause they thought it was boring. But I didn't give up. We added an entire playtesting department and we came back and shipped that game two years later [as Revolution 60] and we won an iMore Game of the Year award from that because it was so improved. So, you know, I always knew there would be things I'd need to learn through this process and it doesn't daunt me at all — starting fresh in 2020. The best I've felt in a year was waking up yesterday knowing that I have a fresh page to build a new campaign. 

You were one of the women targeted by the Gamergate troll army a few years ago; in watching 2016 play out, was there a little deja vu—seeing a whole national conversation being manipulated by trolls?

Some very credible people have looked at Gamergate and have noted how it affected our entire political system now. I think that Donald Trump has unfortunately Gamergated the entire politics of America.

Do you think the geek world has diversified in the wake of Gamergate?

Well, written science fiction has really leaped ahead very quickly here — you know, if you look at the Hugo Awards it has been delightful to see women like Charlie Jane Anders do so well at getting their work out there, and it's really awesome to see more women getting that opportunity. But if you go into types of media that take a hundred million dollar check — the financial institutions get involved — you see very little change there.

What I hear saying is, “Yeah, when the barrier to entry is low — when all you need is a computer word processing program, women and non-binary people and people of color are very welcome!” But if you need more than that…

Yeah. We can compete, but there's still a very big risk aversion. I don't understand how Wonder Woman made as much money as it did, and the only new major women-led series to come out has been Captain Marvel. I look at the new Marvel movies coming out and it's just more of the same. And there's clearly a fear out there of putting a hundred million dollars towards a project lead by women, and I think it's just indefensible because of the track record these movies have shown. People are clearly crying out for media that looks like them. 

Speaking of that, who excited your imagination about what was possible for you?

Star Trek: Voyager was huge. To this day, I think about Captain Janeway daily and her leadership philosophy. I mean, she was tough when she had to be but she led with empathy a lot of the time in a way Captain Kirk just did not. You know, B'Elanna Torres, she was an engineer too. How about Seven of Nine? I want to write a Ph.D. thesis on Seven of Nine. This is a character that was hurt and conflicted and was trying to become greater than what she was — she was an experienced scientist, she was a good leader — and what did popular culture reduce her down to? It was the size of her boobs. The way I saw that character was as someone I aspired to be — like, that competent at science. I think I interpreted that show very differently than a lot of men did. 

I spoke to another woman from a science/tech background running for Congress [Brookhaven physicist Elaine DiMasi] and she said that it prepared her for politics because tech-y people see failure in a different way.

The term is ‘fail fast,’ right? The idea from tech is you fail fast — you do something, it doesn't work, you try something again. One of the cool things about running for United States Congress rather than the Senate is it's a two-year cycle.

This also reminds me of a study I read not too long ago that found that science fiction and romance genre fans make better romantic partners because they have more realistic beliefs about the challenges of relationships. I think it has to do with how, as fans, we’re sort of trained to think of failure as part of the journey. 

I think that's really true. You know, I've built narrative video games, and we all know that a win isn't a win if you don't have like that moment of seeming defeat right before it. Yeah, now that I think about it, this experience follows the plot to Mass Effect pretty well. 

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